|"Rea-lly? I happen to have taught a class at NYU entitled 'Navigating a Restaurant Wine List'"|
First rule: Read from back to front.
Really. Simple as that. Someone hands you a 30 page wine list? Open it to page 30 and work backward. Why? Well, because everyone else starts at page 1. They all look at the same wines, they work into the list about 15 pages, and then they get tired of looking and just pick something. Which means that they don't consider the other pages, and those wines just sit there, and as they sit there they get older, which may well mean the wines get better.
Does starting from the back of the list mean that you are going to be drinking a lot of Sauternes? No. But it might mean that you find that old auslese that has been classified on the wine list as a "sweet wine," even though it now has 20 years of age and little perceptible sweetness. Or it might mean that you spend more time considering the large format page, which is a good idea. Magnums move through most restaurants very slowly, because customers say "Oh, we won't drink that much," even though they will eventually order two bottles of a Brunello anyway. As magnums don't sell through, they age in the restaurant's cellar, and offer more mature drinking than the 750ml options on the list. And again, because magnums don't sell, they often don't get marked up to a higher price point as they get older.
Second rule: Go reverse "type"
It's an Italian restaurant? Well, don't order Brunello. Everyone orders Brunello in an Italian restaurant. The Brunellos are priced accordingly, and that is higher. Time to flip through the list of the Italian restaurant and look for a Burgundy, or a California Cabernet. That's right. Because those wines don't sell in that restaurant. I'm not talking about the DRC or the young cult cab that is there just because a high roller might order it. I am talking about California Cab with age on it, which is ignored because of the venue. The same rule applies when going to a classic French restaurant. Every other patron there is likely to order Burgundy. Look instead for the Barolos that may be there on the list. Often those will be more mature and offer better value because they don't sell every night.
Rule Three: Buy the cheapest wine
That's right. The very cheapest wine on the list. The line everybody believes is "buy the second cheapest wine on the list." I am here to tell you, if it is a good wine program, the only reason the sommelier put a $30 bottle of wine on the list is because he or she likes that wine. There is no other reason. None of the waiters are going to be congratulating the sommelier on putting on a wine at that price, trust me. So a sommelier puts on a wine he likes and what happens? Nobody buys it because it is too cheap. The wine just sits there in inventory. The sommelier can't raise the price, because what if somebody comes in and says "I saw such and such wine at a retail shop and it was nothing and here you are charging a fortune for it!" So the sommelier is stuck. That's where you come in. Order the cheapest wine on the list. Very often you will be surprised at how good it is.
Rule Four: Take the side streets
Don't look for the obvious appellations. The sommelier will have heard something along the lines of "I want DRC (or Petrus) for $80" from guests several times a night. That is what everyone is hunting for. If everyone is hunting for it, it has long since sold out by the time you have occupied your chair for dinner. Instead, look for the lesser known regions. There has never been a better time to be drinking wine from the Loire Valley than today, for instance. Lombardia contains a treasure trove of less expensive Nebbiolo. If you go for the B's (Burgundy, Bordeaux, Brunello, Barolo) you are very likely going to pay a premium when you don't have to.
Rule Five: Forget about vintage hype
Every day, in every city in America, people pay too much for a wine because it is from a "famous" vintage. Don't make this mistake. Great vintages very well may make for great wines, but in the long term, not the short term. Most of restaurant wine consumption does not involve the long term. It involves wines a few years old. Do you want to be drinking 2005 Red Burgundy now? No, you don't. It is hard, and showing little but a promise of future greatness. Don't be fooled into thinking you should be buying that wine for consumption today, at the dinner table, just because you have read so many positive notes about the vintage. Also, and this is the real truth: sometimes those "great vintages" don't turn out to be so great after all. Consider 1995 White Burgundy or 1996 Red Burgundy. Definitely not living up to the accolades that they were given on release. It is a smarter move to snap up "lesser" vintages that will become mature sooner when dining at a restaurant.
Rule Six: Don't be afraid to decant
If a wine does seem to be hard and tannic, go ahead and decant it. Give it some air. Watch the wine change in your glass. It is always amazing to go back to a wine and find that it has changed considerably in just a few minutes. Decanters can help turn unruly wines into proper dinner companions. And it is a myth that decanting is just for old wines. Decanting can help you out the most, in fact, when the wine is young. Young white wines, too.
Rule Seven: Ask about a second bottle when you order the first
If you have a large party and your are selecting wine, don't assume that because a wine is on the list that there will be plenty of bottles to go through, especially if it is an older wine. If you are worried that your steak might later get cold while you look at the list a second time to select a different bottle, make sure that you inquire when you first order a wine if there is in fact another bottle available. Then you know if it will be there if needed.
Rule Eight: Hard to pronounce is cheap, easy to pronounce is expensive
Over and over again one sees guests ignoring wines that they aren't familiar with because of the awkward names attached to the labels. Don't do that. Make a point of asking about wines that seem difficult to say. Often they are overlooked and neglected, when they could be telling you volumes about a native region and wine made in an authentic, traditional manner.
Rule Nine: Don't glaze over a page with high prices
Larger lists are often arranged geographically, and not by price. So it is very possible that you could have 30 wines from the same place, some of which command hundreds of dollars, while others are a relative pittance. Just because you see some big dollar numbers on a page, don't skip over all of the other options on that page. You may be missing something noteworthy and inexpensive.
Rule Ten: Ignore wine by the glass
Really. Just don't buy a glass. The highest markups on the entire list will be on the wines by the glass. In fact, wines by the glass are huge revenue generators for most restaurants. Get a cheap bottle instead. The relative value will be much higher. Leave some leftover wine for the service staff if you want, and become their favorite regular. Or take it home with you (law allowing).
Rule Eleven: Drink what is supposedly out of season
People think of young rose in the summer. Everybody wants rose in the summer. However, few drink the older roses, the mature roses, in the fall, when they can be quite lovely. Find a rose with some savory character, something from Bandol perhaps. Look and see if it has a few years of age on it. If it does, most of the summer time drinkers will have skipped right over it, thinking that it won't be fresh or good. Enjoy that mature rose, which is probably very versatile with a range of foods, as the leaves start to change color.
The same logic applies to crisp, young whites. Lots of people want to drink these in the summer. I often also like a brisk young white in the winter. It gets the blood flowing, I feel more alert. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that high acid is only for warmer weather. And often those high acid, lean white wines are some of the cheapest wines on the entire list.
Rule Twelve: Pick food to go with your wine, not the other way around
Restaurant entree prices are pretty consistent, have been for years, and are likely to continue to be in the future. Which is to say, depending on how many stars a restaurant has, your entree is going to cost somewhere between $25 and $45 for the plate of food. The divergence on any one menu is less than that. Usually no more than $10 seperates the most expensive entree on offer from the least expensive.
Wine prices, on the other hand, vary dramatically. A wine might cost $35 a bottle, or it might cost $3,500 a bottle, and those options may very well be on the same wine list. Which is to say that it makes more economic sense for you to pick your wine first, before your food. If decline to do this, and you pick the turbot as your entree, then you are locked in to wines on the list that go well with turbot, or what may be 30 percent of the list. The other way around increases the chance of finding a great value wine, and then you can decide what to eat with it. Your choices on the food menu won't go down 30 percent with a wine in mind. Usually they don't go down more than half. And you will have possibly saved $100 instead of $10. Bottom line: don't value hunt on the menu, value hunt on the wine list, because that is where the savings will be. Which means you should pick the wine for your meal first, before you pick the food.
The last rule: Avoid the $80-120 trap
For as long as I have been a sommelier, which is to say 12 years, I have watched people at three and four star restaurants usually aim for the same price point. Most people, most of the time, want to spend about $95 on a bottle of red wine with dinner. This number has not changed in over a decade. What has changed is the wine that $95 will buy you today, as opposed to a few years ago. But the best strategy is to avoid that price point altogether. Many people look in that range, and whatever was really good, whatever gems might have been, they are probably gone. The better strategy is to go high or low. As crazy as this sounds, relative value is often highest around $300 a bottle, or $45. Since most people don't hunt in those zones, that is where bottles of real interest can very often be found, as long as you avoid hyped names and vintages. Sure, $300 is a lot of money for a bottle of wine. But what if that is a bottle of Heitz Cabernet from the 70s or 80s? That could be a life changing wine, a wine you will remember for the rest of forever. The odds that you will find a life changing wine for $95 are very low indeed.
All right, those are my tips. Of course there is a lot that wasn't even mentioned, like BYOB. Feel free to add your insights in the comments. I'm always looking for a new way to drink better for less.